The Year I Stopped Rolling My R's

Originally published Nov. 1, 2015 on mylittleapt.com

A while ago I was nominated for a Forbes 100 -esque list of female power players (!!), and as part of the process I was asked to type up what "my story" was and why I felt like I belonged on the list. What was my unique angle.

I struggled with coming up with an answer. After a week of frustration and many coffee shop happy hours to help me "brainstorm" - I realized that I didn't truly know because I had never really sat down and thought about it.

I know my strengths and weaknesses, what makes my heart beat, I know what I want my legacy to be - but I had never thought about what made my journey different. There is the LinkedIn bio and buzzwords ('connector') - but what really was my leverage?

AnalisaPreK.jpeg

 

I kept going back to a conversation I had with my friend Victoria (a threepeat White House intern and all around #bossbabe). We were discussing what she wanted her role to look like in the political world and how she wanted to be a "connector on the fringes." She wanted to be able to swing through both doors - speak to the Latino experience and be respected in that arena and then be able to communicate the needs of that community to her white counterparts without being seen as another "angry brown person."

I hadn't thought of what I do in that lens before that conversation because to be honest, I never wanted to be a Latina businesswoman. A Latina working in technology. A Latina (insert occupation here). For a very long time, in the words of my homegirl Mindy Kaling, I believed that could be a limiting way to portray myself:

"There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them," she Kaling told Parade in September. "But while I'm talking about why I'm so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art."

When I got into college, I ran away hard from the Latina (insert occupation here) title.

I refused to join any Latino groups on campus (or at least make them my main source of communion), made a concerted effort to make friends outside of my culture, and definitely dropped the accent on words I was typically used to accenting because I became annoyed at having to repeat myself every time.

I was coming from a near 100% Mexican-American population, I had never actually been a minority before I moved to Austin and I refused to be that minority that only stuck to other minorities. Especially after I walked into my first class at UT - professional communications.

Instead of another lame ice breaker game, our professor had us each stand up and give a 30 second elevator speech. I was one of the last students to go, and it was the first time I had ever been self-conscious about how I sounded. For the first time I heard the difference in my dialect and I finally understood what people meant when they came down to the Valley and said we had an "accent." For the first time I heard my border English' slight up tempo and fry and I didn't like it.

So I began putting a more conscious effort into my enunciation, something my mom had actually always harped on me about. I also figured out that slightly deepening my voice when I spoke helped. The first time I came back home for the holidays my high school friends who had stayed in the RGV told me that I sounded "too white" and some other 'friends' made backhanded jokes about me sounding 'stuck up' and thinking I was 'too good' for them. Even now when I go home it never fails that I will get asked: "De donde eres? No es de aqui." And two weeks ago, a student that I have worked with for a few years didn't realize we shared the same hometown. When I asked him how he couldn't have known, he said that it was because I just didn't "sound ghetto enough."

And this is why I am finally sitting here and completing this post that I have had in the drafts folder and edited and re-edited for months.

Because in those first few years, without realizing it, I shrunk. I shrunk to fit a space that I felt I could be taken more seriously in, I shrunk to fit a space that I felt would be less threatening, I shrunk my cultural identity because I was afraid of becoming the token Mexican in the group, I didn't want any part of that label, I desperately wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet as just Analisa.

What I didn't get at the time is that the Latina (insert occupation here) was a crucial part of my story because there weren't enough voices in my field telling it.

You probably know this by now, but I come from a region in South Texas known as the Rio Grande Valley, an area that sadly, gets most nationally recognized for its yearly award of having the poorest per capita income in the United States than anything else. ...But growing up I didn't see any of that.

I didn't understood how poor we really were (but let me clarify, rich in so much else) until I moved away - albeit a meager six hours north. Austin had how many non profits? Your high school had an entrepreneurship  program? What everyone considered the "ghetto" HEB looked like the "nice" HEB right by my family's home in Brownsville. My first job was for a tech startup that was trying to capitalize on the sharing economy. Next it was for an organization that was innovating the way adult literacy and adult college readiness programs were structured. My mind was blown. How, how was no one taking this down to the valley?

I was getting angry. Angry when people applauded my articulateness, my intelligence "especially from being from down there," angry when they were near shell shocked when I spoke of one of my students or friends of mine who got accepted into a good state school or better yet, an ivy league. Angry every time I was told how I lucky I was, angry every time someone thought it was okay to make a 'good to have you, I may need a cartel hook up sometime!' joke to my face, angry every time I was told I didn't 'look' like I was from the border.

So instead of assimilating, instead of shrinking, I began integrating. I began talking about everything from how insane the idea of the border fence was to me and the stories of friends who were DREAMers to the students I worked with. I began talking about the needs of South Texas and my experiences to people who were in halls of power that could help me make a difference, to friends who had maybe only ever been exposed to a handful of Mexican Americans in their lives.

And before I knew it, I became that connector on the fringes.

I learned that I was really good at selling an idea, stirring empathy, and getting people thinking without being that angry brown person or that white knight in shining armor.

Being able to swing between both worlds and speak to both narratives - that was the angle. That was my power.

So for all of the students I currently work with, many who are also from border towns who are going as little as six hours to crossing several states for college in the next few months:

Don't shrink in the space you take up. Don't just blend in with the crowd, don't just climb the ladder - figure out a way to bring it back down. And roll your r's whenever you get the chance. 

P.S. Check out the series of portraits and short stories I collected for the Latino Healthcare Forum's cultivatehealth hackathon. 

Analisa Cantu